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generally by the women of Genoa, and has such a remarkable and picturesque effect when seen in the twilight hour, and within the gloom of an Italian church: the veil of the good ladies of Ghent resembles rather what is called a sun bonnet, something like those that cottage children wear in summer, covering the head, and falling in a cape round the shoulders. How it is put on I understand not, for they take it off, fold it up, and carry it fiat on the head when they like. Sometimes, from these white kneeling figures, and from the cavity of a wide sleeve, appeared the whole of a fair hand, and even part of a plump arm; sometimes from beneath the white canopy looked up an open and cheerful countenance. I remarked that the hands and arms when seen looked young; the faces uniformly were old when they showed themselves. As soon as the office ended, the sisters rose, and extended their arms at full length in the posture of benediction, with the hands stretched out. It was a singular, yet pretty sight. Then there was a movement, not formal, studied, regulated, but free and natural, brisk and easy. It rained; the sisters, most of whom were old and motherly looking, carefully took off their snow-white veils, folded them up, and laid them in a square on the crown of their heads, carrying them as a Pyrenean woman does her capulet on occasions.
They left the chapel, tucking up their long purple robes, for this was a high day, and purple is worn by the noble ladies, and is the state robe instead of the ordinary black one; and as they chatted to the poor people about the door, smiling good-naturedly, and speaking their old-fashioned Flemish tongue, I could not help contrasting their air and manner, and even their dress, with the rather singularly equipped Sisters of Charity one sees in Ireland, and even in England also. What can be the reason that those who devote themselves to that blessed work in the latter lands, make themselves appear in an aspect the reverse of all that would seem to speak of love, joy, and hope? Why assume downcast looks and repulsive aspect? Why should they be seen moving about with the dress and air of persons engaged in works of darkness, rather than of light? Clad in ugly cloth cloaks even in summer, with black bonnets, and crape veils never raised from their faces, their movements and appearance are calculated to raise suspicion and attract remarks; even to provoke the false and sinful charge of hypocrisy against persons who have no temptation to practise it. T have seen Sisters of Charity almost everywhere else—seen them with uncovered faces, with happy, animated cheeerful looks; seen them hurrying with the messengers sent for them through the streets of French towns, neither seeking nor shunning notice; seen many beautiful eyes and bright cheeks shining with gladness, truth, and the joy of benevolence. Why should those who would adopt their mission of mercy, adopt with it an appearance so unlike? Why assume an aspect and style of attire, which are as well calculated to irritate prejudice, as they are ill adapted to express the spirit of cheerful Christian labour, of joy-diffusing benevolence? I ask the question, because I should like the answer. Can this proceed from the antagonistic spirit in religion which is generally so furiously prevalent in Great Britain? Can it be possible that any one could object to see good and benevolent women banded together, for the performance of works of charity and mercy? And is it, indeed, because they know they are remarked, suspected, misunderstood, that they appear and act like persons conscious of such a prejudice against them, and thus unwittingly Vol. i. c
strengthen ideas it would be so desirable to see removed?
The well-known Beguinage of Ghent is one of the most ancient and largest of these Flemish establishments. In external aspect, it is something like a Moravian settlement, except that its feudal-looking gateway, and church, and warder, give one rather the idea of the old fortified religious houses of days gone by. The houses are grouped round the church; a congregation of sister houses, each bearing on the door of its enclosure the name, not of the lady who dwells therein, but of the saint to whom it is dedicated, so that you ring at the door of St. James or St. Paul, to ask for the sister you desire to see. These Beguines are, happily, not bound by any vows; they are, of course, subject to a superior, and to the laws of obedience, without which no community can subsist, and to which the genius of Protestantism is decidedly inimical. But, with permission from their superior, they can travel where they please, and may leave the convent, if they prefer a return to the world. They say no one has taken advantage of this liberty. Many of the ladies have lived from youth to extreme old age, in the place to which they brought an income
sufficient, at least, to live with moderation upon in the world. Many of them are noble and wellendowed women, and to look at their good, round, and unwrinkled Flemish faces, one might say that life had passed as well with them as with others, who spent it in the gayest scenes of earth. But we know not—it might be curious to know—the heart-histories of the Beguinage of Ghent.
These sisters spend their time, according to their different ranks and stations, in works of mercy, in necessary labours, or in education. Young girls who are unable to pay, are occasionally received, and trained for out-of-door employments.
The Beguines are considered an unexceptionable and excellent order; they visit the hospitals and prisons.
After the bloody field of Waterloo, the Beguines were busy. I was once told—it is long since—a story of a young officer who was saved from needless interment by one of these good women. She was, with many of her sisters, traversing that horrible scene of carnage soon after the battle ceased. Some men were throwing into a pit a mass of slaughtered human bodies. Among that mangled heap, the sister, who leaned over the pit, thought she saw the movement of a hand.